FOOD

What Happens To Your Brain When You Quit Coffee

Expect headaches and lapses in concentr... what were we saying?

18/05/2016 11:33 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST
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So sad.

Much like brushing our teeth or nailing the Vegemite-to-butter ratio on a piece of toast, stopping by the local barista is, for many Aussies, a well-established part of our morning routine.

Luckily for latte lovers, an increasing amount of recent research suggests coffee actually has several health benefits, including potentially make us live longer. However, this doesn't mean you have the all-clear to go on an unrestricted caffeine bender. (Sorry.)

Pretty much like anything else good in this world, there is a thing as 'too much' and sometimes, for health reasons or otherwise, a person might look at kicking their coffee habit for good -- a process which, unfortunately, doesn't come without its fair share of side effects.

"Definitely some people get headaches, fatigue, drowsiness and find they are unable to concentrate or are moody and irritable," Lauren McGuckin, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Just while your brain adjusts to not having that heightened stimulation."

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Unfortunately, the more dependent you were on your caffeine hit(s), the worse your withdrawal symptoms are likely to be.

"The more coffee you have, the more you grow used to its effects," McGuckin said. "You become tolerant to it, so the more you have, the more you need in order to get the same hit.

"If you are used to a highly daily dose of a stimulant, and are used to having greater amounts, then to go cold turkey and to suddenly no longer have that stimulant and that chemical reaction, it's a massive kick in the head so to speak."

Speaking of going cold turkey, this is something McGuckin actually recommends you don't do.

"I would actually recommend cutting down rather than cutting out, and adapting to smaller doses" McGuckin said. "I wouldn't actually advise completely stripping your body of that dependence it has become so accustomed to."

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Expert advice: cut down, don't cut out.

In terms of why we actually suffer withdrawals when we cut out caffeine, McGuckin says the jury is pretty much still out, but it's largely thought to be due to how caffeine affects stimulants in our brain.

For instance, caffeine has the ability to block our adenosine receptors. Given adenosine basically tells your body it's time to rest, the fact caffeine blocks those receptors means our body isn't getting the message.

"Caffeine can fit perfectly into that adenosine receptor and block it off, which stops us from getting tired," McGuckin explained.

Furthermore, blocked adenosine receptors also means our body produces more dopamine, a natural brain stimulant which elevates our moods to make us feel better. This, in turn, affects our adrenaline levels.

"Because there's now extra adenosine in the body -- because it's still being produced but isn't able to lock into receptors -- your brain is then signalled to get the adrenal glands to secrete more adrenaline," McGuckin said.

Your brain is saying, 'what the heck? I need to maintain this equilibrium and don't have that additional help I was getting from the coffee'. So your system is out of whack, essentially.

"When you cut out coffee, your body is then going, 'I have all these adenosine receptors now being bombarded by the actual property that's supposed to latch onto them,'.

"Your brain actually grows more receptors over time, depending on how much caffeine you are actually having, so now you have this abundance of receptors that need to be filled.

"Your brain is saying, 'what the heck? I need to maintain this equilibrium and don't have that additional help I was getting from the coffee'. So your system is out of whack, essentially."

In terms of how to face the withdrawals, there's really only one thing you can do, and that's wait it out.

"In situations where it's not possible to cut down slowly, then you really do have to ride it out," McGuckin said.

"One thing I will say is don't swap one habit with the other. Just because you have cut out caffeine, it doesn't mean you should start looking for a different kind of boost, say, for example, from sugar. Just be kind to the body and nourish it through that stage."

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If this is how many cups of coffee you consume a day, you might want to think about cutting back.
For those who want to keep their coffee passion alive without getting crazy about it, McGuckin recommends 300 - 400 mg of caffeine a day (about four to five cups of instant coffee), and 200 mg for pregnant women.

"In most cases, I don't believe you need to actually cut it out," McGuckin said. "There are actually health benefits to a couple of cups a day from cognitive point of view, and there is evidence it's beneficial to brain function and memory.

"So it's certainly not a bad thing. But just like everything, too much of something can take it too far and it's then it can become detrimental.

"It's all about balance."

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